Working Hours, Machines, and Unemployment

Albert FRANK

Machines such as computers and robots have been conceived to help man, not to give him problems. But, what happens? Currently they are causing unemployment! It is certainly not their fault, but this sad situation requires that we consider an alteration of the present system.

To do a specific task ten hours would have been required thirty years ago (as an example). Now, with the help of machines, five hours are enough. Therefore, for the same productivity, instead of 38 hours per week -- the predominant European standard work week -- only 19 hours are needed. (There will be a few more in total to take into account the maintenance of the machines.) This is magnificent: thanks to machines, it should be possible for people to work only half as long to get the same result. It should be a big success! (We won't digress here on a discussion of the problems of a civilisation of leisure.)

What happens in practice, however? Now we encounter imposed work hours -- the number of hours per week just to "be there" in the office, for instance, or a laboratory --rather than what must be accomplished. And, thanks to machines, now one man or woman can, during the course of this time interval, produce what would have required two people -- one of the two of whom has lost his job in the name of efficiency! So, machines are now perceived as man's enemies! This perspective may seem simplistic, but there are so many examples: to make an invoice, to sell an airplane ticket, to print an article,.....

And it doesn't seem to stop: Competition (with a capital C), the "taboo" of violating work hours to maintain the respect of peers, the fear (!) of being replaced by a machine that is "faster and more efficient". And what about the value of the shares of company stock -- if "we are not the first" who will speculate?! How many people would be more "efficient" (I don't like this term) if they could work at their own pace in executing the given tasks?

I will finish by giving an example from my own fond memories: In 1975, I was responsible for the schedules of the National University of Zaire, Campus of Kisangani. The yearly schedule required consideration of a mass of data (those on sabbatical and visiting professors, reorganizations, classroom facilities (class sizes ranging from 20 to 800 students per room, etc.). In one week, I performed the scheduling of everyone at the university for an entire year. There were a few hundred Professors and students represented and all were satisfied. When the Chief of Staff of the university and I convened, he said, "Albert, you performed an effort that would "normally" take two months; therefore I am giving you seven weeks of holiday." Life would be beautiful if it was always -- or at least sometimes -- like that.